Thursday, June 07, 2018

BWorld 218, Tobacco taxation, smuggling and plain packaging

* This is my column in BusinessWorld on June 04, 2018.

“To cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did, I ought to know because I’ve done it a thousand times.” — Mark Twain

On May 29, 2018, I attended the “Health for Juan and Juana” conference on universal health care (UHC) at the PICC, jointly sponsored by the DoH, ADB, PHAP, MeTA, Havas, AC Health, others.

It was a big event with many participants and high-powered speakers and facilitators from national and local governments, multilaterals, NGOs, academe and private players.

Listening to the health officials of Davao, Makati, Bataan, and South Cotabato, I got the impression that with the way they provide health care to their constituents, it is possible to abolish the DoH and realign its budget to LGUs.

The keynote speaker was Sen. JV Ejercito, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health and Demography and he talked about his UHC bill, the public consultations, the financing including his proposal to further hike tobacco tax to P90/pack. It is a far-out number compared with P30/pack in 2017 under Sin Tax law of 2012 (RA 10351), to become P35/pack in 2018, P37.50 in 2019, then P40/pack in 2022 under TRAIN law (RA 10963).

Since corruption in government remains high, higher tax rates mean higher tax avoidance. Lots of cigarette smuggling occurred in 2015-2016 involving billions of pesos of avoided taxes. In February 2017 for instance, the Bureau of Customs estimated that some P50B of foregone taxes in 2016 were due to smuggling, about P16B of it was from cigarette smuggling.

If the numbers are correct and if we divide P16B over P29/pack excise tax in 2016, that was equivalent to 552 million packs of cheap cigarettes. Cheap cigarettes encourage more smoking and, as a result, higher tobacco taxes achieve an opposite result.

With higher tobacco tax this year because of TRAIN law, cigarette smuggling has continued.

For instance, a BusinessWorld report on May 01, 2018 said “DoF warns cigarette smuggling may be helping finance terrorism.”

DoF Secretary Sonny Dominguez was quoted, “Illegal money can end up funding terrorist activities” while Customs Commissioner Caesar Dulay said that “smuggled cigarettes are currently flooding the market.”

High taxation and explicit prohibitions are often two sides of the same coin. One policy done by governments abroad is the prohibition of displaying the tobacco companies’ names, logos, and brands via plain packaging policy. So all cigarette packs by all players, old and new, established or fly-by-night, will display similar designs and graphic warnings.

After implementing plain packaging policies since December 2012, illegal tobacco consumption in Australia has increased from an estimated 11.5% to 13.5% in 2012 to up to 15.0% in 2017 (source: KPMG, “Illicit Tobacco in Australia, Full Year 2017 Report,” April 20, 2018).

This because many new players, including those engaged in criminality and terrorism, have come in, produced cheap cigarettes since plain packaging is much easier to copy, and attracted more buyers and smokers.

The United Kingdom also enacted the plain packaging policy in May 2017 and after one year, (1) no significant decline in smoking incidence happened, partly or largely because (2) cheap counterfeit plain packs surfaced.

The counterfeits were found to have high tar, nicotine, and carbon monoxide than those allowed in UK, and in some cases, are found to contain heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead, along with other toxic contaminants: asbestos, mold, dust, dead flies, rat droppings — and even human excrement. (Sources: The Times, “Illegal tobacco tainted by asbestos and rats,” May 16, 2017; Evening Standard, “Sniffer dogs with GoPro bodycams help uncover 30,000 fake cigarettes in Soho crackdown,” May 24, 2017).

Meanwhile, the World Justice Project (WJP) produces an annual study, the “Rule of Law Index” (RoLI) and score countries based on their performance on 8 factors and 44 sub-factors. The RoLI 2017-2018 Report involves more than 110,000 households as respondents and 3,000 expert surveyors in 113 countries and jurisdictions.

A summary is shown below, focused on Factor 6: Regulatory Enforcement (Government regulations are effectively enforced, applied and enforced without improper influence; Administrative proceedings are conducted without unreasonable delay, etc.)

So if Australia and the UK with better rule of law implementation have experienced high and rising incidence of illicit trade and smuggling of cheap cigarettes, how much more for developing countries like the Philippines?

If the Philippines will consider imposing higher tobacco taxes like the P90/pack proposal by Sen. Ejercito, and/or if it is to consider plain packaging policy, given its low rule of law culture and poor regulatory enforcement, a doubling of current extent of illicit trade and smuggling can be expected.

Which means more fake and cheap cigarettes will come in, and there will be more smoking and smokers, not less.

More government taxation and prohibitions create adverse selection problems; the law of unintended consequences always kicks in as nature abhors a vacuum.

Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. is President of Minimal Government Thinkers, a member-institute of Economic Freedom Network (EFN) Asia.

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